Chasing the Northern Lights

Life is full of mysteries. For me, these mysteries include rubics cubes, basic algebra, and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop. But even more mysterious than these is the aurora borealis. As a born-and-raised North Idahoan, we’re frequently promised glimpses of the Northern lights by our local weathermen, but they’re rather faint and rarely seen. It’s like Costco – the free sample is just a tease to the full meal. We wanted the full meal.

My wife also had her heart set on seeing one of nature’s greatest displays in full force. This led us to taking two dedicated trips to track down these illusive lights.

I’d like to credit this stunning photo to WallpaperAccess. If I ever met this photographer, I’d shake their hand and buy them a beer.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

Excellent question! And an answer you may already know, but if you don’t, this paragraph is for you. The Northern Lights are caused by solar storms on the Sun. According to a .org website (oh, it’s legit), “the aurora’s characteristic wavy patterns and ‘curtains’ of light are caused by the lines of force in the Earth’s magnetic field.” If you’re an aurora expert, I apologize for this surface-level summary of the Northern Lights. It’s probably offensive.

Now that we’re all experts on the Northern Lights, I’d like to share our aurora adventure.

Freezing in Fairbanks

So with spectacular images of the Northern Lights blazed into our minds, we decided to b-line it to Fairbanks, Alaska, to celebrate our one-year anniversary and see the Aurora with our own eyes. We packed a chunk of our frozen wedding cake and stuffed our bags with warm clothes for Alaskan temperatures in October. And with fall being an ideal time to spot the Northern Lights in Alaska, we thought we’d have a good shot at seeing them. It also helps being closer to the Arctic Circle.

Upon our arrival to Fairbanks, we soon realized that the cloud-cover would be a major hinderance to us spotting the Northern Lights. It’s like Mother Nature pulled a fluffy gray blanket across the entire sky, blocking our view from the stars above. My wife said she recalls it being cloudy the majority of the time, and I trust her memory more than my own.

Alas, we didn’t catch a single glimpse of the aurora in Alaska, but we enjoyed a few fun adventures in our nation’s largest state. I’ll share that story in a separate blog coming soon(ish)!

Icy-cold Iceland

Don’t get me wrong – cloud-watching in Alaska was off the charts, but my wifey and I had a fierce desire to see the awe-inspiring aurora. So fast-forward one year from our time in Alaska, and we made it farther north to Iceland. It’s a country full of natural hot springs, dramatic scenery, and overpriced Taco Bell.

We visited this snow-covered landscape in February. The winter driving in Iceland is not something I’d recommend for anyone who feels uncomfortable playing the ”Who’s Lane is It Anyway?” game where the tour buses speed and the lanes don’t matter.

On top of the treacherous driving conditions in our four-door rental, my wife dealt with around-the-clock morning sickness while pregnant with our daughter. Combine windy roads and my terrible driving skills, and the trip was no bueno for wifey. You can also visit Iceland during the warmer times of year to avoid the scary driving conditions. We just chose to go in February because the timing worked for us.

We ventured outside of Reykjavik towards Thingvellir National Park on Route 36. My ever-clever wife downloaded a handy Aurora app that tracks the forecast of these dancing lights which gave us an idea of the odds of encountering one of their grand displays.

Let me just say that, as a Northern Idahoan, I feel confident driving in the winter. I’ve seen my fair share of slide-offs and snow drifts. This Icelandic road was on a whole new level of sketch. I felt like a driver on the show “Ice Road Truckers.” The unrelenting wind blew across the landscape, picking up the top layer of snow, and creating a white-out effect across our windshield. Scary stuff.

I gripped the wheel with both hands as massive tour buses flew by us on the snow-covered road, leaving swirls of snow in their wake. We didn’t even feel comfortable turning around in the harrowing conditions. Instead, we stayed behind a larger vehicle and used their taillights to guide us into the icy abyss.

We did, however, find several pull-outs on this route. There aren’t a ton of spots to park near this road, so grab one when you spot a free one. My wife and I drove to several pull-outs along the route, and made it to our final spot after midnight.

We sat with the car running for what seemed to be hours. It probably felt even longer for Trisha because I subjected the poor gal to my terrible dad jokes. Just as I was considering heading back around approximately 2 a.m. (my timing is always impeccable – just ask my wife), the beautiful aurora began to materialize over the snow-blanketed landscape.

Beautiful bands of green and yellow slowly waved across the night’s sky. Trisha and I climbed out of the car and stood underneath the colorful wisps. It’s a sight that we’ll never forget.

I did my best to capture the colorful display on my Canon Rebel, but these pictures don’t give it justice. (Photo tip: Pack a compact, lightweight tripod so you can program your DSLR at a lower shutter speed to absorb more light. And if you don’t have a tripod, try setting it on a solid surface to avoid motion blur).

As the silent display began to disappear, we jumped back into our rental car and made the white-knuckle journey back to Reykjavik. We felt grateful to have caught the elusive lights so early on in our trip this time around, but we still wanted more.

The Aurora in Akranes

Now I’ve never read a Nicholas Sparks novel (thank the good Lord), but I imagine viewing the aurora underneath the stars in a snow-covered cabin could serve as a location for a story of his.

And that’s exactly where we spent our final nights in Iceland. This cozy cabin, which we booked through, was nestled near a ridge of snow-capped hills just outside Akranes, which is north of Reykjavik. It may not have been as dark and remote as the first night we saw the Northern Lights, but it was much more cozy and comfortable than hanging out in a car all night.

From the cabin’s front porch, we enjoyed watching the streaks of color dance in front of our eyes. The colorful ribbons whipped across the sky with grace. It’s one of those sights that takes your mind off all the stresses of life.

5 Tips to Seeing the Northern Lights

Here’s just a short list of tips that may help you on your journey to spotting the Aurora Borealis.

  1. Avoid a Full Moon – Lunar light hinders the view of the Northern Lights.
  2. Check the Weather Forecast – Clouds are the enemy. Make sure the skies are clear.
  3. Prepare for an All-nighter – There’s a good chance you’ll be sitting in the car for a while. Bring snacks, drinks, a blanket, and be patient! You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature’s schedule.
  4. Download an Aurora Tracker – This is helpful. There’s a variety of free mobile apps to help you track the ever-changing aurora.
  5. Venture Out – Find a remote location, away from city lights and busy roadways. Stay safe!

Enough about our Aurora adventures. Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? Let us know in the comments below! Be sure to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of this page to receive blog posts in the future! As always, thank you so much for reading and supporting MTN Talk!

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